How a newspaper's deal soured

SUN JOURNAL

Ethics: The Los Angeles Times is trying to restore its credibility with readers, staff and the journalistic community after agreeing to share revenue with the subject of its news coverage.

November 11, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN STAFF

A newsroom in revolt, a scathing denunciation of senior management from a legendary former publisher, wall-to-wall condemnation from the journalistic community, and readers questioning the integrity and credibility of the newspaper itself.

That's the situation the Los Angeles Times finds itself in as the result of a business deal made last month between its publisher and the owners of a new sports arena.

"This is something that has clearly been very damaging to a great newspaper," says Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, published by the the University of Maryland's college of journalism.

The facts by now are well known. On Oct. 10, the Times devoted its entire Sunday magazine -- at 164 pages, including more than 100 pages of advertising, it was about 3 1/2 times bigger than usual -- to articles, photos and graphics about the new Staples Center arena in downtown Los Angeles. Only later did it become publicly known that the newspaper had agreed to divide with the arena the $2 million in revenues generated by the section.

The news was a blow to the Times' institutional credibility, for it suggested that news coverage at the paper was subordinated to commercial considerations. In a widely reported anecdote, a Los Angeles political operative wisecracked to a Times reporter, "How much to get my guy on Page 1?"

"The real concern about it," says Jack Nelson, chief Washington correspondent of the Times, "is that you're in a financial arrangement and sharing profits with the subject of your coverage. That's seen as a conflict of interest."

Bill Babcock, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, has a stronger word for it. "You don't cover the source and then say, `By the way, we're going to share the profits with you,' " he says. "It's akin to kickback."

Not only readers were left in the dark about the arrangement. Times editor Michael Parks was not told of the deal until after the section was printed, though before it was distributed. Most of the Times news staff learned about it only when a local alternative newspaper, New Times, reported it.

An angry two-hour newsroom meeting followed on Oct. 28. Times publisher Kathryn M. Downing apologized, blaming her actions on a "fundamental misunderstanding of journalistic principles." Downing assumed the post in June with a background in law and business publishing, but no experience in newspaper journalism.

But the controversy would not subside. Last week, Otis Chandler, the paper's former publisher and a member of the family whose ownership involvement with the Times goes back to 1882, sent an open letter to the newspaper's staff calling the Staples deal "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional."

Parks has promised an investigation "as a key step to restore with our readers the credibility that makes the Times a great newspaper." The inquiry will be conducted by David Shaw, the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, who has written critically of Times coverage.

Citing the internal investigation, Downing and Parks will not discuss the case. Neither will Mark Willes, chairman of Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers.

Journalism academics place the events within the context of larger forces affecting the newspaper business, such as the demand for greater profits as control of many papers has gone from family to corporate ownership. In some cases, the search for new revenue streams has blurred the line between news and advertising.

Many newspapers, including The Sun, increase advertising by publishing special sections. Sometimes these are driven by newsworthiness, as when the Orioles' Cal Ripken broke baseball's record for consecutive games played, and are produced by the news staff.

Other sections are originated by advertising or marketing departments to appeal to particular reader interests, such as health, education or automobiles. These sections, sometimes called "advertorials," are clearly marked as productions of the paper's business staff, and news reporters and editors have no role in their preparation.

Some staff members at the Los Angeles Times suggested that the Staples Center section be done as an advertorial, but editor Parks overruled them on the grounds that the opening of a sports arena for the city's professional basketball and ice hockey teams amounted to major news for Los Angeles.

It is "extremely dangerous territory," says Robert M. Steele, director of the ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "To take all of the editorial product of a magazine and then have the financial complications in terms of revenue-sharing seems to me to be pulling the pins out of grenades."

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